Wisconsin shooting: Why US Sikhs have feared attack for more than a decade

Sikhs, who wear distinctive clothing as acts of faith, have been on high alert in America since the 9/11 attacks, bracing for violence whenever there is a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

REUTERS/Max Whittaker
Parvinder Singh reads from the holy book of Sikhs at the Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple in West Sacramento, California. Sikhs in the U.S. have been bracing themselves for an attack since 9/11.

Sunday’s shooting rampage at a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisc. brought unprecedented violence and attention to a group with only about 600,000 adherents in the United States.

But it wasn’t the first time Sikhs have faced threats or feared the prospect of tragedy.

“Every time there is a moment when anti-Muslim rhetoric fills the news cycle, we brace for violence to break out” against Sikhs, says Valarie Kaur, an interfaith activist and maker of “Divided We Fall”, a film that documents hostility toward Sikhs immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.

As acts of faith, Sikhs wear distinctive clothing, most notably turbans on the heads of men.

“When you flip on your TV, most of the images of turbans and beards are associated with Al Qaeda, terrorism, Osama bin Laden and the like,” says Manbeena Kaur (no relation), education director for the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group formed after the 9/11 attacks. “But in real life, 99 percent of the time when you see someone with a turban, that person is going to be a Sikh. That’s a huge disconnect.”

Sikhs have been on high alert for more than a decade as incidents haven’t let up. Since 2001, the Coalition has received more than 700 reports of bias, including two California murders in 2011 and the February 2012 desecration of a Sterling Heights, Mich., gurudwara (house of worship).

What’s more, the group’s surveys find no age group to be exempt. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 12 percent of Sikhs say they’ve faced employment discrimination since 9/11, while 69 percent of turban-wearing Sikh students have suffered bullying or harassment because of their religion.

As world religions go, Sikhism is relatively young. Founded in 1469 in Punjab, India, the faith now counts some 22 million global adherents. That makes it larger than Judaism, which counts about 14 million.

Sikhs, who follow teachings passed down by a series of gurus, or spiritual guides, are defined both by appearance and belief in a single god. Rituals are forbidden, as are cutting and shaving hair. They don’t fast, have no worship attendance requirements, have no clergy, and disavow “superstition.” They also shun intoxicants, alcohol and tobacco.

In terms of outlook, Sikhs regard all humans as equals. To convey that principle, men take the name Singh and women take the name Kaur. That tenet put them at odds with India’s Hindu caste system from the beginning. Now it rings ironic: Sikhs have long championed equality, even where doing so has been controversial, yet they find themselves targeted for looking different.

Despite the difficulties, maintaining appearances is a crucial part of the religion. By wearing particular clothing, Sikhs signal their religious identities – and the values represented therein – even before they open their mouths.

“You are literally wearing your religion on your head,” Manbeena Kaur says. “You’re wearing it out of commitment to your faith and so you can be easily identified as a Sikh.”

Sikh history in the United States dates to the 1890s, when adherents settled in California and worked, often as farmers or laborers. Later the community branched out to the East Coast, particularly New York and New Jersey. Now Sikhs live in every state, with larger concentrations in such urban centers as Houston and Chicago.

In the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Sikhs have ramped up advocacy efforts and educational outreach in bids to demystify a little-known religious minority and clear up persistent misconceptions. But they’ve faced challenges, including at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which has rejected a proposed ban on turban pat downs.

Now, Sikh advocates say, the Wisconsin shootings make the need for more education urgent once again.

“Never before has the entire nation turned its attention on the Sikh community,” says Valarie Kaur. “This is unprecedented, which means we have an unprecedented opportunity for people to learn about Sikhs and reach out to their Sikh neighbors.”

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